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10/12/06 10:12 PM ET

Harden needs to bring his 'A' game

With club in an 0-2 hole, right-hander's Friday start is key

OAKLAND -- Entering the 2006 season, Rich Harden was thought by many experts to be a front-runner for the Cy Young Award.

Instead, the A's starting pitcher had to spend most of the season on the disabled list. Despite that, the A's are depending on him heavily for a quality start in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Tigers on Friday.

For the 24-year-old Harden, it will be the biggest start of his career with the A's trailing 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.

"I'd say it's a big start," Harden said. "I'm going to treat it just like any other start. I've got to go through and get prepared and not try and do too much, and that's kind of the attitude I'm taking toward it."

Harden is following rough outings from Barry Zito and Esteban Loaiza in the first two games and will try to help Oakland become the first team to come back after losing the first two games at home in an ALCS.

"We need a starter to step up and shut down their offense," said A's third baseman Eric Chavez.

"He's got shut-down stuff," added Jay Payton of Harden. "If he has his 'A' game, we'll be in good shape."

A's manager Ken Macha said during a press conference on Thursday that his goal for Harden is to put five zeros on the scoreboard and then depend on his bullpen, which will be rested with the off-day. Harden referred to five innings as a "minimum" for him.

"As a starting pitcher, you'd like to get more than five innings," Harden said. "It all depends on pitch count and what's going on in the game. It's a big game and we'll see what happens."

Harden was first put on the shelf after a start on April 26 when he reached for a comebacker and strained a muscle in his lower back. He didn't start again until June 4 against the Twins and ended up spraining a ligament in his right elbow while throwing a changeup.

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Since returning to the starting rotation on Sept. 21, Harden has had two starts where he showed quality stuff and one where he gave up six runs on three hits and six walks over 3 2/3 innings on the final day of the regular season.

Harden hasn't started in the Majors since struggling in that outing against the Angels on Oct. 1. His only action has been throwing on the side and 52 pitches in the Arizona instructional league on Monday.

Pitching coach Curt Young, A's director of player development Keith Lieppman and A's director of player personnel Billy Owens attended Harden's start at the club's Minor League complex.

"They felt he was pain free," Macha said, "threw the ball free and easy, breezed right through the first three innings. In the fourth inning he gave up some hits and they got some runs, but it might have been just part of fatigue or whatever."

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"I felt good," Harden said about the four innings in Arizona. "The purpose was just to get some work in and get a good feel coming into this start. The first three innings [I] threw pretty much all my pitches and cruised along, and then the last inning we wanted to go mostly fastballs and locate that."

The A's decided on Tuesday that Harden would start in Game 3 instead of Dan Haren. That means that either Haren or Harden would be available for a possible Game 7 at McAfee Coliseum.

Harden grew up playing hockey in Canada and lives in Victoria, British Columbia, in the offseason. So the expected 40-degree temperatures with possible rain in Detroit shouldn't affect him.

"It's something I've played in," Harden said of the cold. "Growing up in Canada I played hockey outdoors and played baseball in this weather, so I'm used to it."

Ryan Quinn is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.